Bargains, jaw-dropping, pleasing and otherwise

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A few weeks ago, two unrelated packages of wine arrived for sampling. Because they were priced comparably -- $8 suggested retail -- and included similar varietals, all from the broad California appellation, I thought it would be interesting to taste through them all together.

I knew nothing about these wines, but they brought with them quite different marketing approaches.

One lineup, named Wily Jack, attempted to create a character and wrap the brand around him. The other, a group of wines carrying the Oak Grove label, used the word "reserve'' to suggest that it might be of a higher quality than its peers.

The Wily Jack brand pulled out all the PR stops. There was a story (opening lines: "The sun's last hurrah laid long shadows across the barren plain. Wily Jack sat on a weathered outcropping enjoying his new freedom.'').

I surmised that Wily Jack's new freedom must have had something to do with cooking, as along with his wines came recipes for such ridin' and ropin' regulars as grilled salmon with horseradish-mustard sauce. Not to be tangled with, Wily Jack also included a Wily Jack branding iron, just in case someone might want to try to rustle his salmon, I suppose.

The Oak Grove wines had no story, no recipes, no branding iron, no marketing gimmick. This I took to be a positive sign. Perhaps money had been invested in such things as quality grapes. The packaging, though plain, was attractive, and other than the use of the word "reserve'' (which is a completely meaningless and unregulated term) the whole lineup was presented with clear, useful information contained on a single sheet of paper. Included were a merlot, a shiraz, a zinfandel, a cabernet sauvignon and a petite sirah. These were really solid wines, loaded with ripe, spicy fruit, yet with none of the sweet vanilla and tobacco flavors that infuse so many inexpensive red wines. I can honestly recommend all of them, but were I to pick just a couple I'd point you to the shiraz and zinfandel. All are from the 2008 vintage and distributed by Unique Wine Co.

While I'm quite certain that Wily Jack can cook up a heckuva grilled chicken with romesco sauce, his wines need some work. A chardonnay, cabernet and zinfandel are offered. None made much of an impression, but perhaps I was overly absorbed in the continuing adventures of Wily Jack, Chapter 2. Here we are introduced to a mysterious female: ``She studied his face hoping to find a single clue that would help shape her decision. His penetrating eyes said everything and nothing she needed to know.''

I can relate.

Meanwhile, the search for the best possible bargain bottles led once again to the 21st annual Concours du Cheap Wine, staged annually by my friends Joe Vinikow and Julie Sakahara. Participants are asked to bring a red wine ("grape in origin'') that is "cheap and available'' and sells for $9 or less.

Wines are bagged, numbered and tasted blind. A couple dozen wines were in the mix this year -- down by half from the bad old days, but all those in attendance considered that to be a step in the right direction. Interestingly, in a year when wine prices are being dropped like passes in a Seahawks game, the overall quality seemed a bit static. Many tasters noted almost wistfully that the truly wretched wines of years gone by were in short supply, but there were no barnburners, either. Everyone voted for their top three and worst wine. The winners:

No. 1: Columbia 2005 Syrah

No. 2: Eliseo Silva 2006 Syrah

No. 3: Rosemount 2005 Shiraz-Cabernet

No. 4: Columbia Crest Two Vine 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

No. 5: Columbia 2006 Merlot.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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